Food magazine Lucky Peach has a spiffy new website that will run features from print plus a sprawl of new, online-only content, and editors Dave Chang and Peter Meehan square off on the State of Ramen to kick things off. Chang says the noodle soup has lost its innovative edge, while Meehan grants special dispensation to Chang up front, just because he and peers such as Ivan Orkin have been wading knee-deep in the trenches on tonkotsu while disks of narutomaki volley overheard for a decade now. Most anyone else who argues against the vitality of ramen has listicles to autofill, Meehan suggests; it’s not a trend that wanes, he argues, so much as it is a personal, literally fluid medium that thrives from Manhattan to Oakland.
Chang isn’t so sure, at least on the surface. The Momofuku chef and restaurateur says the nuanced chain of custody of ramen recipes and techniques that once benefited from a master-apprentice system never really translated to the U.S., and the internet ruined everything else, especially the kernels of mystery that make ramen great. The country’s noodle scene is currently awash in deeply porky broths and stifling homogeneity, Chang argues, which is the antithesis of ramen. (“We borrowed but made it our own narrative,” he says of the self-proclaimed “overrated” soup that has been synonymous with Momofuku Noodle Bar ever since the pioneering restaurant opened its doors for the first time, in 2004.) “In general, the balance between innovation and quality is totally out of whack. Progress is good if you know what you’re doing and pay appropriate respect to what came before it,” he writes. Progress does not extend to the ramen burger, which Chang says is the “lowest hanging fruit.” The recent full-scale rollout and subsequent bombing of the stunt sandwich at fast-food chain Loteria in Korea seems to confirm that notion.
There are signs of progress in all this, he notes: Ivan Orkin’s soups bridge traditional styles with new ingredients, and a movement is afoot in Japan among ramen chefs to bring back clear chicken broths, just like the one Jack Nakamura is serving at Ramen Lab on Kenmare Street. In other words, maybe the form isn’t as moribund as it seems in the U.S.; it’s just coming into its own.